You’re in a grocery store, and there’s a man with his head on a swivel.
He’s checking exits, watching customers and looking longer at some than might be socially acceptable.
He’s doing that because that’s his job. Or at least it was, just a few weeks earlier.
He’s trained to spot threats from the front of military convoys as a gunner on top of tanks. Having just left a war zone, he hasn’t kicked the habit yet.
That’s part of what Cpl. Justin Edwards took back with him from his deployment in Afghanistan in 2010. “It takes a while before you stop scanning everybody,” he said.
Now 32 years old, Edwards said he looks at Remembrance Day differently than he did as a child.
From his initial perception on cold fall days in Niagara Falls as a kid, veterans have evolved from vague impressions of G.I. Joe to being his fellows. And Remembrance Day has become an opportunity to hear their stories, reunite with old friends and remember others.
Being a soldier hadn’t been part of Edwards’ plan, he said.
“I wanted to be a cop,” he said. But, in 2007, he’d been reading about terrorist attacks, and seeing a lot of armed forces commercials on TV.
“I just thought I could do my part to help the country,” he said. “So I went and joined as an armoured crewman. Honestly, I went in on Monday to ask questions, and on Friday I was at basic training… a young, twenty-something, stupid kid that just thought, ‘Hey, let’s go be a war hero,’” he added with a laugh.
His plan and hope was to go into combat in Afghanistan right away, but an injury during training kept him from battle until 2010.
“I left a pregnant wife and two kids back home when I got over, and you get the nervous jitters and… everything is real, now. It’s not training anymore.”
When he joined up, Edwards said, he thought he’d be driving tanks. Instead, he’d become a gunner for lead tanks on convoys.
“We had mine rollers on our tank, so (our job) was to pretty much hit the bombs,” he said. “We were hoping to find them first, though. So that was a lot of my job, just trying to find IEDs and find threats up ahead of us.
“Every time you go out, you’re very aware of everything. You don’t want to become complacent, is the main thing. You constantly have to look, and you don’t want to fail everyone else.”
While that can bring a lot of pressure, there was a certain amount of comfort in working with a crew of people that had become like family, he said.
“So we kind of almost liked being there, because you’re with a family… But at the same time, the fear is there and everything else is, all the realness to it is also there.”
Edwards said he had some close calls when he was in Afghanistan, but not as many as some other soldiers. “We got very lucky a lot of times.”
Coming home for Edwards was perhaps a different experience than most of the Canadian troops. After about five months, he was sent home to an emergency. His wife was having complications to do with her pregnancy.
“Honestly, that was probably the most jarring of my experiences, was having to leave pretty much my family in a war zone and go home to complications,” he said.
Edwards said going to war did change him, but added that many others had more to deal with, including PTSD.
Still, it was difficult to stop looking for threats, he said.
“You go from a war zone where my job was to look for the threats ahead of me, and then you come back and you’re just automatically doing it at first. Every once in a while you get a weird look like (people) think that you’re staring at them.”
Now, Edwards is still in the military, but he’s doing the job he’s always wanted to — he’s a military police officer at the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges in Nanoose Bay.
With Remembrance Day on the way, Edwards said he’s interested in hearing the stories of the Second World War vets that are still around.
“It’s interesting because we did spend our whole lives, up until we joined the military, going to Remembrance Days and seeing the older guys from World War I and II and Korea and stuff,” he said. But even as there are fewer and fewer of these veterans remaining, the urge to hear their stories and honour them is strong, he said.
Asked what he thinks about already being a vet with a story to tell, he said, “I teach youth groups here in Nanaimo, and I already feel like that old guy when they talk to me and they ask me questions about it.”